The key to perfect cheesecake is in the baking. This water bath method bakes the cake very gently, so it won’t darken, curdle, or crack.
A springform pan works best because you can remove the cake easily, but muffin tins or any other cake pan will work fine. If you use a plain cake pan, grease it well and line the bottom with parchment paper.
1. Preheat your oven to the temperature recommended in your cheesecake recipe. To prevent water from seeping into the removable bottom of the springform pan, wrap aluminum foil completely around the bottom and halfway up the sides of the pan. Place the cheesecake into a jellyroll pan (or any baking pan with sides) and place the pans into the oven. Use a teakettle to fill the outer pan with hot water. Cheesecakes usually bake for about 1½ hours, so check the bath after the first hour and refill if necessary.
2. Because cheesecake is very soft, it can be difficult to judge when it’s done baking. One way to check for doneness is to take the cake’s internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. The ideal temperature for a cheesecake is around 160 to 165 degrees F (70 to 72 degrees C). You can also insert a small knife into the center of the cake, and if it comes out clean, the cake is done. Some bakers turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake in it for an additional hour to ensure it’s completely set.
3. Once the cheesecake has been removed from the oven, it needs to chill thoroughly–preferably overnight. The cake will have pulled away from the edges of the pan. Carefully run a small knife around the edge of the pan to loosen any bits that might stick to the pan.
4. Unclip the clasp at the side of the pan, watching for any areas that stick. Carefully lift the outer ring over the top of the cake. If you used a plain cake pan and don’t want to serve dessert in the pan, invert a plate covered with a sheet of waxed paper over the pan. Tip the cake pan over the plate, and remove the pan. Invert a serving plate over the bottom of the cheesecake, and flip it over. Remove the top plate and paper, trying not to peel off the “skin” on the surface of the cheesecake. Any imperfections can be covered by chocolate ganache, a fruit sauce, or a layer of lightly sweetened sour cream.
5. For a seamless look, you can smooth the sides of the cheesecake with a hot, wet knife. Any toppings or garnishes can be added at this point.